PRINT December 2014

Briony Fer

View of “Gego: Line as Object,” 2014, Henry Moore Institute. Foreground: Esfera Nº 5 (Sphere No. 5), 1977. Background, from left: Esfera Nº 7 (Sphere No. 7), 1977; Siete icosidodecaedros (Seven Icosidodecahedrons), ca. 1977; Esfera Nº 8 (Sphere No. 8), 1977. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones. © Fundación Gego.

WHAT DOES SCULPTURE BECOME when it is suspended in space, containing nothing but air? What does drawing become without paper to provide its surface? The work that the German-born artist Gego (who emigrated to Venezuela in 1939) made in Caracas from the late 1950s through the early ’90s continues to prompt such fundamental questions about the status of postwar art. It shows us what is left of the art object when you have taken away precisely that which conventionally defined or supported it: whether mass from sculpture or ground from drawing. The little that remains has the surprising capacity to hold a space, even a very large one. “Gego: Line as Object,” which began at the Kunsthalle Hamburg (in a revelatory juxtaposition with a concurrent show of work by Eva Hesse), traveled to the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, Germany, and then came to the Henry Moore Institute this July, made a compelling demonstration of why Gego is so key to rethinking the object, precisely by making it disappear.

Like any sleight of hand, this endeavor took years of hard work to perfect but seems effortless. In “Dibujos sin papel” (Drawings Without Paper), 1976–89, a series of wire works made of iron, bronze, plastic, and thread that attach only loosely to the wall, the proposition to unground drawing could not have been clearer. The intricacy of these pieces’ making—of bending, twisting, joining bits of wire into frame-like shapes—is dramatically haptic: The process of handiwork is everything, the surface nothing. These small composites of wires and washers, made of leftovers from other pieces, combine maximum touch and yet zero texture.

Gego’s working methods are constantly disarming, perhaps most of all in the environmental “Reticulareas,” 1969–82, the large, netlike structures for which she is best known. Geometric shapes accumulate, made only of the wire hinges that articulate them as 3-D volumes in space. Gego clearly studied geometry, but here textbook diagrammatic figures behave like wayward webs, and her interlinking spheres proliferate like clusters of bubbles or other, more organic or virtual forms of geometric precision. And as the “Reticulareas” merely segment off portions of empty space, they ever so slightly turn and vibrate, too, perpetually receptive to the movements of the air.

Some of the smallest and least familiar works displayed were Gego’s last, the “Tejeduras” (Weavings), 1988–94, which the artist actually did make from paper. Having removed the foundation of drawing early on, she finally took to fabricating an entirely different type of ground. Again, the haptic is paramount in these experiments, in which uneven surface texture returns in the alternating warp and weft of the paper. Her technique was simple: Cutting existing photographs found in magazines or prints of her own work into very thin strips, she wove them in and out of one another, allowing two or even more images to intersect and break down into fragments.

The show made a case for seeing Gego’s work as sculpture, despite the artist’s adamant insistence that what she did was “not sculpture.” This claim for the sculptural, compellingly argued by Henry Moore Institute curator Lisa Le Feuvre in the exhibition catalogue, made sense, given that words—especially words like sculpture that are perpetually fought over—have complex histories that are as illuminating as they are elastic. This approach allowed us to see even these subtly intertwined double images not only in relation to, but as reflections on, her larger project, as art that can operate not just at the border of but as an interface between work and world. It’s not often that you see so starkly how the two are both interwoven and made of each other. After all, in the more or less complex visual fields that Gego created, her wire sculptures never stop you from seeing through them. Her practice of tessellating the air ends up creating its own kind of density, just as we find in one of those small paper weavings. The world is inside them as much as they are inside the world.

Cocurated by Brigitte Kölle and Petra Roettig (Kunsthalle Hamburg), Eva-Marina Froitzheim (Kunstmuseum Stuttgart), and Lisa Le Feuvre (Henry Moore Institute).

Briony Fer is a professor of the history of art at University College London.